Chapter XXVII. Growing A Vocabulary
Boys flying kites haul in their white winged birds; You can't do that way when you're flying words. "Careful with fire," is good advice we know, "Careful with words," is ten times doubly so. Thoughts unexpressed many sometimes fall back dead; But God Himself can't kill them when they're said.
- Will Carleton, The First Settler's Story.
The term "vocabulary" has a special as well as a general meaning. True, all vocabularies are grounded in the everyday words of the language, out of which grow the special vocabularies, but each such specialized group possesses a number of words of peculiar value for its own objects. These words may be used in other vocabularies also, but the fact that they are suited to a unique order of expression marks them as of special value to a particular craft or calling.
In this respect the public speaker differs not at all from the poet, the novelist, the scientist, the traveler. He must add to his everyday stock, words of value for the public presentation of thought. "A study of the discourses of effective orators discloses the fact that they have a fondness for words signifying power, largeness, speed, action, color, light, and all their opposites. They frequently employ words expressive of the various emotions. Descriptive words, adjectives used in fresh relations with nouns, and apt epithets, are freely employed. Indeed, the nature of public speech permits the use of mildly exaggerated words which, by the time they have reached the hearer's judgment, will leave only a just impression.1"
Form The Book-Note Habit
To possess a word involves three things: To know its special and broader meanings, to know its relation to other words, and to be able to use it. When you see or hear a familiar word used in an unfamiliar sense, jot it down, look it up, and master it. We have in mind a speaker of superior attainments who acquired his vocabulary by noting all new words he heard or read. These he mastered and put into use. Soon his vocabulary became large, varied, and exact. Use a new word accurately five times and it is yours. Professor Albert E. Hancock says: "An author's vocabulary is of two kinds, latent and dynamic: latent - those words he understands; dynamic - those he can readily use. Every intelligent man knows all the words he needs, but he may not have them all ready for active service. The problem of literary diction consists in turning the latent into the dynamic." Your dynamic vocabulary is the one you must especially cultivate.
In his essay on "A College Magazine" in the volume, Memories and Portraits, Stevenson shows how he rose from imitation to originality in the use of words. He had particular reference to the formation of his literary style, but words are the raw materials of style, and his excellent example may well be followed judiciously by the public speaker. Words in their relations are vastly more important than words considered singly.
1 How to Attract and Hold an Audience, J. Berg Esenwein.
Whenever I read a book or a passage that particularly pleased me, in which a thing was said or an effect rendered with propriety, in which there was either some conspicuous force or some happy distinction in the style, I must sit down at once and set myself to ape that quality. I was unsuccessful, and I knew it; and tried again, and was again unsuccessful, and always unsuccessful; but at least in these vain bouts I got some practice in rhythm, in harmony, in construction and coordination of parts.
I have thus played the sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne, to Defoe, to Hawthorne, to Montaigne.
That, like it or not, is the way to learn to write; whether I have profited or not, that is the way. It was the way Keats learned, and there never was a finer temperament for literature than Keats'.
It is the great point of these imitations that there still shines beyond the student's reach, his inimitable model. Let him try as he please, he is still sure of failure; and it is an old and very true saying that failure is the only highroad to success.
Form The Reference-Book Habit
Do not be content with your general knowledge of a word - press your study until you have mastered its individual shades of meaning and usage. Mere fluency is sure to become despicable, but accuracy never. The dictionary contains the crystallized usage of intellectual giants. No one who would write effectively dare despise its definitions and discriminations. Think, for example, of the different meanings of mantle, or model, or quantity. Any late edition of an unabridged dictionary is good, and is worth making sacrifices to own.
Books of synonyms and antonyms - used cautiously, for there are few perfect synonyms in any language - will be found of great help. Consider the shades of meanings among such word-groups as thief, peculator, defaulter, embezzler, burglar, yeggman, robber, bandit, marauder, pirate, and many more; or the distinctions among Hebrew, Jew, Israelite, and Semite. Remember that no book of synonyms is trustworthy unless used with a dictionary. "A Thesaurus of the English Language," by Dr. Francis A. March, is expensive, but full and authoritative. Of smaller books of synonyms and antonyms there are plenty.1
Study the connectives of English speech. Fernald's book on this title is a mine of gems. Unsuspected pitfalls lie in the loose use of and, or, for, while, and a score of tricky little connectives.
Word derivations are rich in suggestiveness. Our English owes so much to foreign tongues and has changed so much with the centuries that whole addresses may grow out of a single root-idea hidden away in an ancient word-origin. Translation, also, is excellent exercise in word-mastery and consorts well with the study of derivations.
Phrase books that show the origins of familiar expressions will surprise most of us by showing how carelessly everyday speech is used. Brewer's "A Dictionary of Phrase, and Fable," Edwards' "Words, Facts, and Phrases," and Thornton's "An American Glossary," are all good - the last, an expensive work in three volumes.